Book review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

The Mismeasure of ManThe Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

IQ tests are very good predictors of how well you will do on IQ tests.

This revised edition of The Mismeasure of Man tackles the field of hereditarianism and its related attempts at justifying hierarchical social structures. Or put another way, it explores the stinking swamp of race science with hopes of getting people to notice the stench.

I’ve not previously delved into the history of race science and hereditarianism. I was aware that it was a thing, that it keeps raising its ugly head every few years (Human Biodiversity – HBD – is a recent version you may have heard of), and that it pollutes an entire corner of psychology. As such, this book was enlightening and also disheartening. It reinforced just how a priori the entire field is and why it will continue to be popular.

The first time I became aware that IQ testing wasn’t actually doing what the marketing claims would have you believe was in high school. My brother was very intent on “raising his IQ” by studying for IQ tests. Well you might ask, how can you improve your test score on something that is meant to measure something innate? Over the years I’ve read several papers discussing factors that impact test scores (stress, hunger, nutrition levels, tiredness, sleep deprivation, etc) and realised that these intelligence tests aren’t measuring what some would claim. And worse, often the results are interpreted in almost exactly the opposite way to what they should be (i.e. a poor test result is probably more an indicator of some discriminatory factor, like attending an underfunded school, than of being stupid).

So it is well worth reading this book to understand how fraught this field is with literal white supremacists and eugenicists (see my comments below). It isn’t an easy read but is relatively accessible to most people who give it the time required.

Some related papers:
What IQ Tests Test
Does IQ Really Predict Job Performance?

Lay articles:
Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ: Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.
Sam Harris, Charles Murray, and the allure of race science: This is not “forbidden knowledge.” It is America’s most ancient justification for bigotry and racial inequality.

Thoughts during reading:

Have just gotten to the bit about G and Factor Analysis. I’m passingly familiar with principal components analysis, a technique similar in some ways to Factor Analysis, and largely agree with what Gould is saying. It is very easy to not understand what the principal components are actually showing you, let alone what that correlation means. The first thing you learn in statistics is that correlation doesn’t equal causation and something about storks bringing babies.

But this rabbit hole goes deeper still.

I decided to do a quick bit of lateral reading to find some more on G and Factor Analysis. I didn’t get past the former’s Wikipedia page. Just about every reference was from a known white supremacist (Jensen* being particularly prominent as a primary source). Makes it a tad hard to take the field seriously, and hard to find decent research when a jumping-off point like Wikipedia is swamped in BS.

Of course, the rabbit hole goes deeper again.

Another of the people referenced is Richard Lynn (a white supremacist). He and his protege, Emil Kirkegaard (a eugenicist and all-round nasty POS), run a bunch of pseudojournals and a fake research group (Ulster Institute for Social Research) that is all basically a front for white supremacist money to generate pseudoscience. Fun fact: Kirkegaard’s most cited paper has pretty much only been cited by him, fifty-nine times. Thankfully the mainstream doesn’t take these guys seriously anymore, but they have tendrils, as can be seen by Lynn (and other white supremacists) being referenced on the Wikipedia pages.

* Quick note on Arthur Jensen, his Wikipedia bio is much like the G Factor page. It is deliberately misleading and rubbish. You would be forgiven for thinking that Jensen was something other than a white nationalist, avid racist, and in the employ of said same. His funding was barely mentioned in the bio, and he has a whole page on the Southern Poverty Law Centre that doesn’t even get a mention.

Arthur Jensen was arguably the father of modern academic racism. For over 40 years, Jensen, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, provided a patina of academic respectability to pseudoscientific theories of black inferiority and segregationist public policies. Jensen was responsible for resurrecting the idea that the black population is inherently and immutably less intelligent than the white population, an ideology that immediately became known as “jensenism.”

 

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Science fields mapped with infographics

Do you have trouble visualising where the various fields of science and maths sit?

Would you like to visualise all the fields in relation to one another?

It’s just me?

Again?

It’s a lonely life being a science nerd.

But I’m still going to share this really cool series of infographics that come from Dominic Walliman. He developed them as part of his Youtube science channel.

Check out the videos related to the infographics below!

infographic-map-chemistry

infographic-map-biology

infographic-map-physics

infographic-map-computer-science

infographic-map-mathematics

Dominic Walliman: YouTube | Flickr

Hat-tip: https://mymodernmet.com/science-infographics-dominic-walliman/

The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

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Book Review: Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial IntelligenceHumans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ABS brakes were the first step. The last will be us humans in observation cages next to the monkeys.

Jerry Kaplan is an expert in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics and attempts to guide the reader through what impacts AI and Robots will have on our future. In doing so, he raises many of the economic, ethical, and societal problems we are going to have to start addressing.

I first became aware of this book via CGP Grey’s short documentary of the same name (see below). To say there is a storm coming is an understatement. Kaplan guides us through the technological aspects of this topic with knowledge and skill. Where this book falls down is in his blind adherence to free-market solutions – ironically whilst pointing out several examples of where the free-market has failed in the past.

For example, some of his ideas about education are problematic. What he proposes with “job mortgages” is essentially traineeships and cadetships* that in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were paid for by employers, with his modern twist being that employees should take out a job mortgage for. In other words, all of the cost and risk is moved from employers to employees.** How can anyone suggest that sort of thing as though they aren’t talking about slavery or indentured servitude?*** Sci-fi has been imagining that sort of scenario for decades and they weren’t calling it a good idea.

His comments about how rich people being in charge isn’t all bad, like back in ancient Eygpt… Because monarchies worked so well for everyone, who was a monarch.

Another gem was the idea that the free market could be in charge of wealth redistribution… Because it does such a great job of that right now. Now, in fairness, his plan was actually pretty good, but there were built in assumptions he didn’t really question despite laying out the framework with his discussion of automation taking our jobs.

Kaplan spent most of his book outlining what amounts to a post-scarcity world, a world where human “work” would essentially cease to exist, and thus cost, value and products become meaningless. How can you maintain our current economic system in that world? Don’t we need to be rethinking about what utopia we wish to design and the machines that will make that happen?

The final chapter has some interesting questions and ideas about what role humans can play in a world that the robots run and own. Whilst the ideas aren’t new, since science fiction has been prodding that topic for the best part of 70 years, he has grounded them in reality. If there is one takeaway from this book, it is that we all need to start planning the future now.

Overall, this was a fascinating book that is well worth reading.

* A point he acknowledges he is updating to be free-market and more “beneficial”
** It could be argued that this has already happened and Kaplan is just taking it one step further.
*** Again, a point he acknowledges with reference to AIs becoming free of ownership.

https://www.reddit.com/r/Futurology/c…
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2…

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How Is Tech Changing the Way We Read?

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With the rise of social media and smartphone use, we are all reading fewer books than we once did. All, not just those pesky millennials. Some people are worried about what this means for the future of literature and, well, our brains. But is it true that we are really reading less? And should I care?

Above The Noise recently did a video in which Myles covers some of the research on reading.

I always appreciate it when a Youtuber or Journalist manages to discuss a topic without devolving into head-shaking admonishment, especially when it comes to the topic of reading and books. Too often these sorts of videos and articles cite bad research or buy into industry propaganda.

I’ve previously discussed the misrepresentations made about reading ebooks, the overstating of the benefits of reading – when there are some well-researched benefits documented –  and even the way we write. And the Pew Research into reading was one of several references I’ve used in my discussion of Who Reads, something I cover quite a bit here.

And yet, there were still some things in the video that I hadn’t been aware of. So I think it is worth sharing. Enjoy.

From the video:

Reading has been an important part of the human experience for thousands of years, but believe it or not, that’s not a long time on the evolutionary timescale. Before the internet, it made sense to read long texts in a linear fashion, but that’s now changing as people are adapting to skimming shorter texts on their computers or phones. But what does this mean for the future of books?

What is literary reading?

Literary reading is, quite simply, the reading of any literature. This includes novels, short stories, poetry, and plays.

Are we reading less?

The rate at which Americans are reading literature for fun is down around 14% from the early 1980s. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are reading less, however. Many people still have to read for school or work. Then there are all the words, sentences, and messages we read on the internet from emails to texts to tweets. Some people believe that this means we are possibly reading more individual words than ever. It’s just being done in a different way. I’ve also discussed the decline of literature.

And this is changing our brains?

Some neuroscientists believe that scanning shorter texts the way we do on the internet, often jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink, is actually changing the wiring in our brains. We are becoming better at searching for key terms and scanning for information, but this means it can become more difficult to read a longer text all the way through without missing major points.

SOURCES:
Children, Teens, and Reading
The long, steady decline of literary reading
Who doesn’t read books in America?
Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say

Economics of medicine

Recently I was reading an article in Aeon Magazine about the challenges faced by the medicine industry – commonly referred to as Big Pharma or Big Pharma written in one of those fonts with blood dripping from it and a syringe being stabbed into a baby. One of the big changes in medicine development discussed was the patent period that allowed monopolies on new drugs, which in turn saw orphan drugs – not drugs for Oliver “please sir, can I have some more” Twist, but drugs for rarer conditions and illnesses – become more popular/profitable to develop.

It’s an interesting issue and the article is worth reading. But it got me to thinking about something a little tangential. No, not whether Oliver Twist needs a remake set in south-east Asian sweatshops. I wondered how much money is actually spent on things.

Take for example this:

screen-shot-2015-02-11-at-9-03-17-am
Source.

Drug development appears to take a backseat to marketing. But this depends on what section of the market, how big the company is, and other factors. Clearly, medicine development is still a big expense, but how much is spent on research and development overall?

Worldwide pharma R&D $
Total global pharmaceutical research and development spending from 2008 to 2022 (in billions of U.S. dollars) Source.

That global pharmaceutical research spending is quite large at $165 billion. Or is it?

Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP % of World share
World total 1,739 2.2
1 United States United States 610.0 3.1 35.0
2 China People’s Republic of China 228.0 1.9 13.0
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 69.4 10 4.0
4 Russia Russia 66.3 4.3 3.8
5 India India 63.9 2.5 3.7
6 France France 57.8 2.3 3.3
7 United Kingdom United Kingdom 47.2 1.8 2.7
8 Japan Japan 45.4 0.9 2.6
9 Germany Germany 44.3 1.2 2.5
10 South Korea South Korea 39.2 2.6 2.3
11 Brazil Brazil 29.3 1.4 1.7
12 Italy Italy 29.2 1.7 1.7
13 Australia Australia 27.5 2.0 1.6
14 Canada Canada 20.6 1.3 1.2
15 Turkey Turkey 18.2 2.2 1.0  sourceoriginal

Suddenly the amount spent on medicine research and development seems rather small. The USA government alone could easily cover the expense of medicine research if it decided to change priorities, since it spends 3.7 times that much on defence.*

Would it be a good idea for governments to have a Department of Pharmaceuticals that researched, developed, and sold medicines? Would that be money better spent than stockpiling tanks in a desert? Certainly, it would address several of the issues raised in the Aeon Magazine article around how the profitability of drugs, rather than the consumer needs, drives research and development.

This sort of thinking could be applied to many industries. The reality is that there isn’t actually a shortage of money but a lack of incentive to invest money in some areas in favour of others. The solution doesn’t have to be the government taking over, nor does it have to be about private companies not being profitable. But maybe it does have to be about rethinking what we spend money on.

Richard Denniss made similar arguments in his Quarterly Essay Dead Right about the Australian economy.

So maybe it is time to stop accepting the argument “we can’t afford X” and start having the discussion about how we spend for the most good. Or not, I’m not your boss.

*To be clear, I’m not suggesting we stop all spending on something like defense, or that there aren’t reasons for spending money on things like tanks. But as Richard’s video suggests, we are making value judgments and assumptions without really questioning them.

Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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Book review: A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Briefer History of TimeA Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was brief.

In the late 1980s, Stephen Hawking became the name synonymous with smart people, science, and computerised voices when he released A Brief History of Time. In the intervening 27 years (this book was published in 2005) a lot of progress has been made in physics and our understanding of the universe, so this is an update on curved space, quantum gravity, black holes, Newtonian physics, relativity, the Big Bang (everywhere stretch), wormholes and time travel, and the search for a grand unifying theory of reality.

Obviously, this all sounds like very complicated stuff that you’ll battle to wrap your head around. I have to admit, when I read A Brief History of Time in my 20s I struggled with it. Imagining 4-dimensional space was confusing, imagining another 6 dimensions on top of that with string theory was just too much for me. So maybe I’m older, wiser, smarter, and have added centimetres to my head circumference, because I found this book clear and easy to understand. Or maybe this updated version is clearer than the original. Or maybe I’m just more familiar with physics now and can kid myself that it isn’t that hard to understand.

Either way, I found this to be a clear, concise, and easy to understand overview of spacetime physics.

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What genre is the 2008 book Outliers in? What are some similar books in that genre?

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The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a popular example of fiction.

Outliers is probably most famous for promoting the idea of the 10,000 Hour Rule based on how many hours it will take you to get good at doing something. But like all good fiction, it ignores the reality of how skills are acquired.

Unfortunately, many people have mistakenly assumed that Gladwell’s writing should be classified as non-fiction pop-science, or even worse, factual. This has lead many researchers to waste time and resources showing that the 10,000 Hour Rule is nonsense, and that Outliers is pop-science at its worst – i.e. incredibly influential despite being clearly nonsense.

Reviewers of the book have noted the flaws in calling this book non-fiction*:

In an article about the book for The New York TimesSteven Pinker wrote, “The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”[20]

In a review in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called the final chapter of Outliers “impervious to all forms of critical thinking”.[21]

And several researchers have debunked many factual claims made in the book*:

Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. Macnamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing” but “we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued”.[24]

Statistical analyst Jeff Sauro looked at Gladwell’s claim that between 1952 and 1958 was the best time to be born to become a software millionaire. Sauro found that, although the 1952–1958 category held the most births, “[a] software millionaire is more than twice as likely to be born outside the 1952 to 1958 window than within it.” Sauro notes that Gladwell’s claims are used more as a means of getting the reader to think about patterns in general, rather than a pursuit of verifiable fact.[25]

In fact, the 10,000 Hour Rule seems to irk people in the social sciences quite a bit. E.g. Practice Does Not Make Perfect – We are not all created equal where our genes and abilities are concerned.

Are there similar authors and similar books using misleading, cherry-picked, and tenuous research to make broad sweeping pop-science claims that make people feel good? Of course. Plenty of them. It is a minefield in the non-fiction section of bookstores, which I think should be more accurately renamed “Boring Fiction”. So I think it would be negligent of me to recommend more books like Outliers or authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Especially when Gladwell has argued that the truly disadvantaged are the rich, is a corporate propagandist who has argued that we need smokers to fund healthcare, and really doesn’t like engaging with critics.

*Quotes taken from Wikipedia.

This answer originally appeared on Quora.

Book review: How to Build a Universe by Brian Cox and Robin Ince

How to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage AdventureHow to Build a Universe: An Infinite Monkey Cage Adventure by Brian Cox

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to bake some chocolate muffins from scratch, so this book should be useful.

Professor Brian Cox, Robin Ince, and Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Feachem are the team behind the popular The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC science show that pairs scientists and comedians for laughs and education. From 2009 they have produced +100 shows covering all sorts of topics. This book encapsulates some highlights and essays around their favourite topics and common science communication issues* they have covered in that time.

From the opening forewards to the covering of Schrodinger’s Strawberry I was heartily entertained. As a science nerd and fan of comedy, this book seems to have been written specifically for me. It actually left me feeling a bit annoyed that I haven’t, as yet, listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage show, despite having been aware of it for quite some time. So I guess I’ll be rectifying that soon.

What I like most about this approach to science is that it doesn’t seek to sex up science (or dumb down, depending upon the preferred flavour of marketing), but instead make it accessible and entertaining. There is a line between those two that too often those in the media can’t tell the difference between. Science is interesting, but it is complicated, it is often dry, and communicating scientific knowledge as done here is hard to do.

* Yes, I do mean how people aren’t willing to honestly engage with science, either through pseudoscience co-opting, or denial of evidence, or wanting certainty instead of the probability that science offers.

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A Book a Day: Six health benefits of reading

healthbenefitsreading_1600x800

Penguin Australia recently published an article suggesting reading was awesome for your health. Previously I have posted science-backed articles on the benefits of reading (1, 2), so more science telling us that readers are awesome never goes astray. Although, as much as I love some good old confirmation bias, I can’t just share that article without some commentary from the further reading. I mean, the article title is a play on An apple a day keeps the doctor away… that can’t pass without some mockery.

Reading can provide hours of entertainment and pleasure, impart knowledge, expand vocabulary and give insight into unknown experiences. Additionally, research has shown that it has a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. If you need another excuse to pick up a book, here are six ways reading can benefit your health.

And if those six reasons don’t encourage you to pick up a book, then think of them as six ways you’ll be superior to other people.

Improve brain function

Neuroscientists at Emory University in America conducted a study and discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The study showed that when we read and imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described on the page, the areas within the brain that process these experiences in real life are activated, creating new neural pathways.So next time you’re indulging in an armchair adventure with a great book, you could technically claim you’re working out – your brain, that is.

This study was rather small, consisting of 21 university aged participants who had 19 days of baseline brain scans before 9 days of scans as they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii novel. Warning: they had no null group in this study, only the baseline comparison, so any conclusions drawn should be done next to a salt shaker. It does, however, draw similar conclusions to previous research I’ve discussed.

Obviously, stimulating the brain by engaging with a story is going to light up parts of the brain, but there is the implication that using our brains in this way will strengthen pathways. Calling it a workout for the brain is probably a stretch because it isn’t like our brain sits around doing nothing the rest of the day. But for me, the more interesting thing is the shared response among participants. It proves Steven King’s adage true about writing being a form of telepathy.

The big unanswered questions here are how does this compare to any other shared activity, and how does it compare to other similar activities. I’d bet crypto money – always best to keep bets symbolic – that any other activities would see similar responses.

Increase longevity and brain health in old age

Researchers at Yale University School of Public Health found that, ‘reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.’ According to their results ‘a 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.’And the longer you live, the more time you have to get through your to-be-read pile.

This study nags at my skeptic-sense. Nothing immediately jumps out and screams “This study is nonsense, don’t believe it!” but I can’t help but feel like it is. They sampled 3,635 people in the USA and compared readers to non-readers for longevity. Don’t worry, they factored in stuff like age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression. But I’m still left with the nagging sound of my statistics lecturer telling the class that correlation doesn’t equal causation. See this example about storks and babies!

My suspicion is that there is something unmeasured that is confounded with reading that is the actual causal factor. This factor is probably also available from other activities, thus other activities will also increase your lifespan. Just my suspicion. Happy to be proven wrong.

Reduce tension levels

A 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce tension levels by up to 68 per cent.3 Researchers studied a group of volunteers – raising their tension levels and heart rate through a range of tests and exercises – before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading was the most effective method according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. The volunteers only needed to read silently for six minutes to ease tension in the muscles and slow down their heart rate. If ongoing stress is an issue take a look at these simple stress management tips.

This claim is hard to pin down. It’s not like other studies haven’t shown reading (and yoga, humour, cognitive, behavioural, and mindfulness) have impacts upon stress levels. But unlike the linked studies, Lewis’ study hasn’t been published. The source in the Canadian National Reading Campaign links to The Reading Agency in the UK which cites an article in The Telegraph. Now, I suspect that this was probably one of those studies done for a report that no one has read because the only publicly available material on it is the press release. But it could also be rubbish research that didn’t get published because of claims like 300% and 700% better than other activities sound like made-up numbers.*

Increase emotional intelligence & empathy

Numerous studies have shown that reading books can promote social perception and emotional intelligence.2 Studies have also found that when a person is reading fiction, they showed greater ability to empathize. Similar to the visualization of muscle memory in sports, reading fiction helps the reader use their imagination to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.For books that’ll test your empathy, push your moral boundaries and ask ‘what would you do?’, take a look at this collection.

I don’t know why they referenced the same two studies again as they didn’t look directly at the issue of emotional intelligence and empathy. I’ve seen better studies, such as the one I mentioned in my piece on Literary Fiction In Crisis, and this one that literary people like to wave around because they can’t afford a Ferrari. So while this appears to be true enough, it is worth understanding why (read this one and see how lots of books have differing levels of literary merit).

Improve sleep

While some scientists believe reading before bed can inhibit sleep due to heightened brain activity, researchers at Mayo Clinic recommend reading as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that can help promote sound sleep.4 This, coupled with the tension-relieving benefits of reading, can vastly improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. You may want to stay away from page-turning crime and thriller novels though – you could be up all night…

Clearly these people don’t read thrillers. Am I right people? Huh?

Anyway, it is worth reading what the Mayo Clinic actually said:

Prevention
Good sleep habits can help prevent insomnia and promote sound sleep:
Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soft music.

That’s right, it wasn’t that reading helped you sleep, it was that it could be part of a relaxing bedtime ritual. Could. They didn’t recommend it so much as used it as an example of a relaxing activity that wasn’t playing on the computer or watching TV (i.e. screen based). So this is overstating things a bit.

Improve overall wellbeing

Researchers at Italy’s University of Turin published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy: the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Their findings showed that participants in six of the studies saw significant improvements in their overall wellbeing for up to three years after partaking in a course of reading therapy.5 With that in mind, here are some books to help you achieve mindfulness and find happiness in the everyday.

Worth reading the actual link on this one. In summarising they have made this sound like wellbeing benefits were being measured in most of the studies out to three years when only one of the ten studies did. This could just be me nitpicking, but it does overstate the results in my opinion.

As with many of my posts breaking down a sciency article, you can see that at best the claims are overstated, or as I’ve summed up previously I think you’ll find it is more complicated than that. And as much as I like reading – and I’m sure many of you reading this do as well – too often this sort of science isn’t actually helpful.

Sure, reading is awesome, but if you’re going to stick someone in an MRI to prove it, how about comparing it to other activities and including a nill treatment. That’s called good science! Readers don’t actually need some scientist to tell them their hobby is awesome (or maybe they do), and they especially don’t need overstated claims about that science in articles, it goes astray.

* Seriously, check out this “abstract” quote:

Abstract: Tested against other forms of relaxation, reading was proved 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea, 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind. ‘Galaxy Commissioned Stress Research’, Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868356/#s007title
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953616303689
3 Dr. David Lewis “Galaxy Stress Research,” Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)
4 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
5 https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/27/suppl_3/ckx186.244/4555858

 

 

Creativity Explained

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Last week I reblogged an article about some new research into what makes us creative. This week I’m sharing a video from one of my favourite YouTube channels, which essentially covers the same work. But this one is a video!

Since this is going to be a three part series, I’ll update this post as the other videos are released.

Part 2:

Further reading:

Kidd, C., & Hayden, B. Y. (2015). The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Neuron, 88(3), 449-460.

De Pisapia, N., Bacci, F., Parrott, D., & Melcher, D. (2016). Brain networks for visual creativity: a functional connectivity study of planning a visual artwork. Scientific reports, 6.

The Real Neuroscience of Creativity – Scientific American.

Eagleman, D., & Brandt, A. (2017). The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world.

Catapult. Durante, D., & Dunson, D. B. (2018). Bayesian inference and testing of group differences in brain networks. Bayesian Analysis, 13(1), 29-58.

Li, W., Yang, J., Zhang, Q., Li, G., & Qiu, J. (2016). The Association between Resting Functional Connectivity and Visual Creativity. Scientific reports, 6.

Bendetowicz, D., Urbanski, M., Aichelburg, C., Levy, R., & Volle, E. (2017). Brain morphometry predicts individual creative potential and the ability to combine remote ideas. Cortex, 86, 216-229.

New study reveals why some people are more creative than others

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The question has long eluded researchers. agsandrew/Shutterstock.com

Roger Beaty, Harvard University

Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative “geniuses” like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in some capacity.

It’s not just your ability to draw a picture or design a product. We all need to think creatively in our daily lives, whether it’s figuring out how to make dinner using leftovers or fashioning a Halloween costume out of clothes in your closet. Creative tasks range from what researchers call “little-c” creativity – making a website, crafting a birthday present or coming up with a funny joke – to “Big-C” creativity: writing a speech, composing a poem or designing a scientific experiment.

Psychology and neuroscience researchers have started to identify thinking processes and brain regions involved with creativity. Recent evidence suggests that creativity involves a complex interplay between spontaneous and controlled thinking – the ability to both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work.

Despite this progress, the answer to one question has remained particularly elusive: What makes some people more creative than others?

In a new study, my colleagues and I examined whether a person’s creative thinking ability can be explained, in part, by a connection between three brain networks.

Mapping the brain during creative thinking

In the study, we had 163 participants complete a classic test of “divergent thinking” called the alternate uses task, which asks people to think of new and unusual uses for objects. As they completed the test, they underwent fMRI scans, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain.

The task assesses people’s ability to diverge from the common uses of an object. For example, in the study, we showed participants different objects on a screen, such as a gum wrapper or a sock, and asked to come up with creative ways to use them. Some ideas were more creative than others. For the sock, one participant suggested using it to warm your feet – the common use for a sock – while another participant suggested using it as a water filtration system.

Importantly, we found that people who did better on this task also tended to report having more creative hobbies and achievements, which is consistent with previous studies showing that the task measures general creative thinking ability.

After participants completed these creative thinking tasks in the fMRI, we measured functional connectivity between all brain regions – how much activity in one region correlated with activity in another region.

We also ranked their ideas for originality: Common uses received lower scores (using a sock to warm your feet), while uncommon uses received higher scores (using a sock as a water filtration system).

Then we correlated each person’s creativity score with all possible brain connections (approximately 35,000), and removed connections that, according to our analysis, didn’t correlate with creativity scores. The remaining connections constituted a “high-creative” network, a set of connections highly relevant to generating original ideas.

Two renderings show the lobes of the brain that are connected in the high creative network.
Author provided

Having defined the network, we wanted to see if someone with stronger connections in this high-creative network would score well on the tasks. So we measured the strength of a person’s connections in this network, and then used predictive modelling to test whether we could estimate a person’s creativity score.

The models revealed a significant correlation between the predicted and observed creativity scores. In other words, we could estimate how creative a person’s ideas would be based on the strength of their connections in this network.

We further tested whether we could predict creative thinking ability in three new samples of participants whose brain data were not used in building the network model. Across all samples, we found that we could predict – albeit modestly – a person’s creative ability based on the strength of their connections in this same network.

Overall, people with stronger connections came up with better ideas.

What’s happening in a ‘high-creative’ network

We found that the brain regions within the “high-creative” network belonged to three specific brain systems: the default, salience and executive networks.

The default network is a set of brain regions that activate when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as mind-wandering, daydreaming and imagining. This network may play a key role in idea generation or brainstorming – thinking of several possible solutions to a problem.

The executive control network is a set of regions that activate when people need to focus or control their thought processes. This network may play a key role in idea evaluation or determining whether brainstormed ideas will actually work and modifying them to fit the creative goal.

The salience network is a set of regions that act as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks. This network may play a key role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation.

An interesting feature of these three networks is that they typically don’t get activated at the same time. For example, when the executive network is activated, the default network is usually deactivated. Our results suggest that creative people are better able to co-activate brain networks that usually work separately.

Our findings indicate that the creative brain is “wired” differently and that creative people are better able to engage brain systems that don’t typically work together. Interestingly, the results are consistent with recent fMRI studies of professional artists, including jazz musicians improvising melodies, poets writing new lines of poetry and visual artists sketching ideas for a book cover.

Future research is needed to determine whether these networks are malleable or relatively fixed. For example, does taking drawing classes lead to greater connectivity within these brain networks? Is it possible to boost general creative thinking ability by modifying network connections?

The ConversationFor now, these questions remain unanswered. As researchers, we just need to engage our own creative networks to figure out how to answer them.

Roger Beaty, Postdoctoral Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading is good for the brain…. d’uh

I may have mentioned it before, but I am a science nerd. It may also be painfully obvious that I like reading. And before you ask, yes I do wear glasses and own a lab coat. I can fancy dress as anything from a doctor to a scientist.

What I love about science is the way it goes about trying to understand the universe. In fact science even came up with a few studies on how reading is fantastic for you. Psychologists from Washington University used brain scans to see what happens inside our heads when we read stories. They found that ‘‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative”. The brain weaves these situations together with experiences from its own life to create a mental synthesis. Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways – although that’s hardly surprising nor unique.

Nicole Speer, also from Washington University, utilized brain-imaging to look at what happens inside the brains of participants while they read. She discovered that as people read, they are constructing a virtual reality inside their heads every time they read. That’s a fancy way of saying they imagined the stuff they were reading.

A reader’s brain in action.

So. The book is better… Who’d have thunk?

It is good to have some evidence that our brains get more out of reading. Without evidence, claims are not worth the air they consume. Just ask anyone who has tried to get conspiracy theorists to provide evidence for their claims.

Another study scanned readers’ brains to see how reading compared to web browsing (reading plus).*

Each volunteer underwent a brain scan while performing web searches and book-reading tasks.

Both types of task produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain which control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users. (Source)

Brain activity in a personal not used to using the web while reading

Brain activity in web newcomers: similar for reading and internet use
Surfing the net brain in action.

The researchers said that, compared to simple reading, the internet’s wealth of choices required people to make decisions about what to click on in order to get the relevant information. So not only is reading good, but exploring and interacting with what you are reading is even better. Surfing the net, getting lost in a fictional world…. wait that is the same point twice. Anyway, it leads to even more brain activity.

Now before you all go in search of internet porn to enlarge your brain, remember that you’re meant to be reading the porn sites for the articles.

 

* It took me a bit of searching to find the original journal paper for this study. The BBC article and original press release were easy. A personal gripe of mine is when press releases and news articles fail to link to the original article so that we can fact check the claims. So as part of growing your brain with reading and internet browsing, please spend some time searching for and reading the original scientific papers that are reported. And if it wasn’t peer reviewed, then it could have been made up, like that rubbish about us only using 10% of our brain.

Science writing explained

stand-back

Have you ever heard a scientist talk and wondered what the hell they were saying? Did they use the word theory to mean something other than “I reckon”? Well, you’re not alone.

Language is very important to scientists. Without precise language there would be no way for them to write peer reviewed papers that could send an insomniac to sleep. Communicating science is all about letting everyone in on the data and knowledge that is being accumulated in the endless march forward into the unknown. But because scientists are marching into the unknown, they prefer to make their statements as vague and non-committal as possible. This way, if they are correct they have cautiously alluded to the right answer, and if they are wrong they can pretend their statement was hinting at the correct answer all along.

In keeping with my previous explanations of music reviews and book reviews I have found a chart explaining science terms. This list has helped me, I hope it helps you too.

Modern Music Su….

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There is something about music that we all love. By “music” I mean I’m going to discuss the popular stuff that people love to criticise. By “we all” I mean some people, since not everyone likes music, and even music lovers have tastes that differ from the norm. And by “love” I don’t mean the squishy kind. As a music fan, I feel the need to defend modern music, since I quite like some of it.

Recently there have been a number of people disparaging modern music. E.g.:

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This isn’t a new argument. Much like the kids these days argument – wave your Zimmer Frames at the sky now – the modern music sucks argument is based around a number of cognitive biases. Survivorship bias is one part, in that we only remember the music that lasts, and we certainly don’t remember the bad stuff. One of the more interesting parts of our biases is how our musical tastes are formed in our teens and early twenties (14-24). In part, this is when our brains are developing and we are creating our identity. Another part is that everything is still new and exciting, so we get a rush from experiences that we won’t later in life. So everything after that short time period seems strange and against the natural order of things.*

Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity. – Professor Daniel J. Levitin (Source)

But of course, rather than discuss the interesting dynamics at play, the discussion has instead latched onto a study that provides “objective proof” that modern music sucks. Rather than directly cite the study, the vitriolics have found a Youtube video that misrepresents the study to suit their preconceived ideas.

So what does the objective proof study actually say? Well, after a quick search – seriously, how hard is it for these whiners to link and read the damn study – I found the original study. But rather than provide proof that music has gotten worse since the 1960’s, it instead directly states:

Much of the gathered evidence points towards an important degree of conventionalism, in the sense of blockage or no-evolution, in the creation and production of contemporary western popular music. Thus, from a global perspective, popular music would have no clear trends and show no considerable changes in more than fifty years. (Source)

Kinda the opposite of the claim, huh! As a general statement, music hasn’t gotten better or worse, it has pretty much stayed the same over the last 50 years. Nobody has ever noticed that…

Other studies have looked into changes in music over time. A more recent study found that styles of music have changed, often becoming more complex over time. But it isn’t quite that simple. The more popular a style of music becomes the blander it becomes.

We show that changes in the instrumentational complexity of a style are related to its number of sales and to the number of artists contributing to that style. As a style attracts a growing number of artists, its instrumentational variety usually increases. At the same time the instrumentational uniformity of a style decreases, i.e. a unique stylistic and increasingly complex expression pattern emerges. In contrast, album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in. (Source)

In other words, music sucks because it tries to be popular. And it works.

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So saying that modern music sucks is nonsense. What is bland and generic is popular music. Always has been, probably always will be. There is good music being made all the time, you just aren’t going to find it without looking.

* The full quote from Douglas Adams is:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

That isn’t literature too

Paradox - another word for idiocy

I recently reblogged an article from The Conversation about how awesome the Harry Potter books are, but how snobby (some?) literary people are about them. The vitriol and chastisement of the Harry Potter books remind me of a time when I too was not on the Potter bandwagon. Oh, how wrong I was.

Stupid kid’s books. It’s just The Worst Witch with a Chosen One narrative. That’s not literature!

And once again we come to my favourite book chest thumping topic. How worthy is Harry Potter and how wrong have the snobby people been about it?

I think it is worth addressing a few of the arguments that are levelled at JK Rowling and genre fiction in general. Let’s use Rowling as a stand-in for all genre authors. Because all genre authors are just as successful and beloved…

Mostly the arguments revolve around Rowling not having the correct goals in her writing. Of course, these supposed goals are rather arbitrary and change depending upon who is deciding what Rowling’s goals should be. Because apparently writing an entertaining book series that sells hundreds of millions of copies, has devoted fans, promotes laudable social principles, and got some kids reading books who wouldn’t have otherwise isn’t enough for some people. They also tend to expect the world from the Harry Potter books, something that I’ll delve into further below.

Take for example this piece by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian:

Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you’re one of the many adults who don’t have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn’t make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. Source.

Ugh. I’ve got two words for you, Nicholas Lezard, and they are what your mum should have said to your dad on that fateful day.

There is so much to unpack in that small quote. Lezard starts by insulting fans of the books, then says he isn’t insulting them, then insults them again. Someone who could write a paragraph such as this is self-evidently someone upon whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. He’s insulting the use of speech identifier verbs whilst failing to understand the audience and style being utilised. If you expect YA to be using the same style as the Man-Booker winners you’re gonna have a bad time.

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But why insult fans, young and old, of the series? Why insult Rowling? Although she is probably insulated from such lowly criticism in her gold-lined money castle. He didn’t like something, he can critique it, but he is forgetting that a literary critique stands on the argument, not insulting people for disagreeing with him.

This speaks poorly of Lezard and other such critics. In a previous post, I discussed literary people defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. But this is Lezard leading a charge against the peaceful village inhabited by the Lesser Works. He has marked himself the despotic bigoted scourge of Fiction Land, seeking to crush all those who would dare be different from him.

Other critics of Harry Potter have argued that the series didn’t do enough to change the world. This piece comes from the unsupported opinions at The New York Times:

But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, U.S. statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along. Source.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that it requires one series by one author to change the lives of all kids worldwide… The article itself cites the series as having sold 325 million copies worldwide in the decade since the first book’s release (a third of that in the USA alone). Out of the 1.9 billion kids and 7 billion people in the world that means only 17% of kids, or 4.6% of people have bought a Harry Potter book (because nobody ever bought the whole series, or two copies of one of the books, or saw a copy in a library). To put that 325 million copies for the entire series in perspective, roughly 175 million people paid to see A film in the cinema that was tenuously about cars. A similar number paid to see the final Harry Potter film. Let’s face it: reading isn’t that popular.

Let’s break this amazing phenomenon down a bit further. There have been several studies that have looked at readers, particularly kids, and how many of them have read the books.

Percentage of kids reading each Harry Potter book
Source

This is a small survey of children (N = 233) looking at Harry Potter fans, but is consistent with other studies and with a Waterstones reader survey the researchers used to validate the small study. You can see that most kids had read the first book, but that quickly dropped off as the series continued. The studies showed that only 25-35% of kids had read all 7 books in the series, with the average fan reading 3.98 books in the series.

Another thing to note is that studies have also found that 46% and 49% had read a Harry Potter book. Or to put it another way, over 50% of kids hadn’t read any Harry Potter books, and many had only tried one (usually the first one). The most popular book series of all time still isn’t read by a majority of people.

But what about JK Rowling’s influence on reading?

Harry Potter reading influence stats
Source

This study was of only 650 kids, but it does illustrate that particularly amongst secondary school kids that they were inspired to read. More books, more difficult books, and more fiction – and if someone can point out the difference between non-fiction and fiction I’d much appreciate it.

Another study of a similar size found supporting results:

Many, though not all, of our enthusiasts consider the Potter books a major contributor to both their self-identification as readers and their wider literacy development. Perhaps the most striking change they reported was the confidence and motivation to try more challenging books or more books in general. Thus, the Potter books—particularly the thicker ones—acted as a “Portkey” or “gateway,” transporting readers into the world of more mature fiction. Source.

The increasing complexity and length of the books were cited in both studies as giving people confidence to grow as readers. But it was also noted that one of the reasons given for not reading all of the books in the series was also the increasing complexity and length. In other words, you can’t please everyone, especially not kids. Unless you have ice-cream. And the kids aren’t lactose intolerant.

Ease of reading Harry Potter
Source

So the problem isn’t that the books are second-rate, nor that they aren’t encouraging people (kids are people too) to read. The problem is that even the most popular book series ever is going to have a limited impact. Rowling has managed to connect with a huge audience – for a book – which has had positive impacts on readers, such that they are more likely to go out and read more books, even the more complex books that keep the literary snobs in a job.

It is a big ask to expect one book series to have improved literacy rates. At the risk of labouring the point – any further – most people don’t read, and most people who do read won’t have read Harry Potter. The problem isn’t Rowling failing to inspire people enough. It isn’t that she wasn’t a good enough writer. The problem is that people love to make lazy attacks on genre fiction. They don’t want to admit that reading is not that popular and that what we have been doing is probably not encouraging new readers. At least Rowling was on the right track.